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Budget process failed the test of openness

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THE 2021 national budget was prepared without a budget strategy paper (BSP), with the Finance ministry only releasing the document on the last day of the budget consultation meetings, a new study has shown. A BSP serves as a key instrument under the top-down component of a budgetary framework, outlining the aggregate key issues.

MERLIN GARWE
An open budget survey document launched by the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd) showed that  the government released the schedule for budget consultation ahead of the BSP.

“The Ministry of Finance released the BSP on the last day of the consultation meetings. An interview with a Ministry of Finance official revealed that the delay in the release of the BSP was caused by the delay in the finalisation of the National Development Strategy (NDS1 2021-2025) which at the time the government was currently preparing.

The NDS will succeed the Transitional Stabilisation Plan which is coming to an end in December 2020 as the country moves towards attaining a middle-income status economy in 2030.

This implies that the budget for the 2021 financial year was prepared without the BSP as government had already released the schedule for budget consultation ahead of the BSP,” reads the study in part.
The survey results were therefore based on access to the 2020 BSP which showed that public knowledge of the BSP is low.

The survey also revealed that citizens are not aware of the various nodes in the budgeting process where they can exercise their right to participation.

“As such, the notion of demanding accountability remains elusive and respondents to the survey that have ventured in that direction had stories to tell of battles of attrition with the local council, being passed from pillar to post when requesting for copies of budgets, minutes from budget consultations etc,” Zimcodd said.

The civil society organisation noted that although there are initiatives at both central government and local authority levels to ensure transparency, accountability and inclusivity in the budget cycle, gaps still persist across all the stages of the process.

These include timeous availability of critical budget documents, limited involvement of oversight institutions in budget processes, lack of systems to monitor recommendations of the Auditor-General’s reports, lack of publication of internal audit reports, lack of harmonisation of critical laws to the constitution, particularly on promoting gender equity and lack of inclusive mechanisms to ensure effective citizen participation in budget processes during emergencies such as Covid-19.

To this end, Zimcodd recommended that strategic pre-budget policy documents  be prepared early and made available and accessible to the public in line with the budget calendar in order to allow sufficient time for the pre-budget consultation processes.

“There is need to strengthen oversight institutions for effective monitoring of the budget. This entails capacity building of Parliament, including the Parliamentary Budget Office, though it is a technical arm, councils and boards for effective monitoring of executive organs in the implementation of budgets through ensuring compliance with budgeted expenditure,” Zimcodd said.

Recommendations to strengthen systems and mechanisms to monitor the implementation of the findings and recommendations of the Auditor-General’s reports were also made, with emphasis on compliance with best practice.

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